MacBook Pro knows the way to Santa Rosa

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A little less than a month ago, Intel summoned the high-tech press to San Francisco so that it could unveil its brand-new “Santa Rosa” upgrade to its Centrino chipset. The new chipset included, among other things, a faster frontside bus and support for 802.11n wireless networking. These improvements so moved me that, in this very space, I predicted the Santa Rosa chips would find their way into Apple’s laptop line. “A matter of when, not if,” I said. A virtual certainty, I told everyone within earshot.

So not even a week after Intel’s Santa Rosa event, Apple rolled out updated MacBooks. And, of course, these upgraded machines were completely, visibly, and entirely Santa Rosa-free. I happened to be on a beach in Kauai when I heard the news, so that took a little bit of the sting about being so publicly wrong, just in case you were worried about my self-esteem in any manner.

Now Apple had its reasons for excluding any Santa Rosa-based improvements from the MacBook upgrade. “We decided with this update that we would add more value with processor speeds, RAM and hard drive space,” Apple director of portables product marketing Todd Benjamin told Macworld at the time. And indeed, our benchmarks revealed that bumping up the processor speed, increasing the hard-drive capacity, and—in the case of the low-end MacBook, at least—elevating the amount of shared L2 cache produced a noticeable performance jump from the previous round of Core 2 Duo-based MacBooks. Even more impressively, the black 2.16GHz MacBook even out-performed a 2.33GHz MacBook Pro in a couple of our tests.

Perhaps that’s why when it came time to upgrade the MacBook Pro line, Apple did go the Santa Rosa route, finally validating my 27-day-old prediction that such a move was imminent. The MacBook Pro updates announced Tuesday feature faster CPUs, greater memory capacity, and improved graphics performance.

On the surface, the changes to processor speed don’t appear that substantial. The old MacBook Pros clocked in at 2.16GHz and 2.33GHz—the new models sports processors with speeds of either 2.2GHz or 2.4GHz. But keep in mind that the Santa Rosa upgrade introduces an 800MHz frontside bus to the MacBook Pro—the previous offerings had a 667MHz frontside bus. A faster frontside bus moves data more quickly between the CPU and the chipset where the memory management is contained—an improvement there likely means a boost to overall performance.

How much of a boost? David Moody, Apple’s vice president of worldwide Mac product marketing, told us that there’s a 50-percent jump in some graphics applications when compared to a Core Duo-equipped MacBook Pro. That’s interesting, but a head-to-head comparison to the more recent Core 2 Duo models will probably be more illustrative—rest assured that Macworld Lab will begin those comparisons just as soon as the new MacBook Pro configurations arrive at our offices (which apparently happened while I typed this sentence).

Something else the Lab is going to look at—the battery life in these new MacBook Pros, particularly the 15-inch configurations. Those models will feature mercury-free, LED-backlit displays; Steve Jobs said such displays were on their way in his open letter on Apple’s environmental policies last month. Apart from their reduced long-term environmental impact, these displays also consume less power. And that means longer battery life—anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, Moody tells us. Apple’s tech specs page promises 6 hours of battery life for the 15-inch models, which is an hour more than what the previous MacBook Pros listed. Again, Macworld Lab will weigh in with its own results before all is said and done.

Why no LED-backlit display for the 17-inch MacBook Pro? If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the answer lies in the details of Jobs’s open letter. Here’s what he had to say about Apple’s display plans, with italicized emphasis added by yours truly: “Apple plans to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of mercury by transitioning to LED backlighting for all displays when technically and economically feasible .” I would guess that a 17-inch LED-backlit display isn’t feasible at this point, and I’d further wager that it’s the “economically” portion of that clause that’s causing the hold-up. I would also suspect to see the new display across the MacBook Pro line at some point in the near future—but like my ill-fated Santa Rosa prediction, that’s just a guess.

That’s two features right there that figure to significantly affect the MacBook Pro’s performance and battery life, and we haven’t even talked about the new Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT chip that’s powering the laptops’ graphics or the fact that the Santa Rosa chipset boosts the cap on installable system RAM to 4GB. It’ll be interesting to see what all of these changes mean for the MacBook Pro in our upcoming tests.

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